Golden memories

Tate wants to be like ND legend Ismail

September 30, 2009, 9:19 PM

By: Eric Hansen

SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- He met Rocket Ismail at a pep rally two years ago, introducing himself to the Notre Dame football legend and expecting no more than a handshake.

Instead, Irish wide receiver Golden Tate received a pep talk that buoyed him through a frustrating freshman season and endures with him today.

"That's who I want to be like at the end of the day," said Tate, now a 5-foot-11, 195-pound junior. "My freshman year, I watched tapes of him before games. Just speaking to the guy, I liked his personality and how he has his priorities right. He told me I had the potential to make big plays and that he saw some of himself in me."

It would be in Notre Dame's best interests if Ismail saw a lot of himself in Tate on Saturday, when Washington (2-2) visits the Irish (3-1) at ND Stadium (2:30 p.m. CT).

This past Saturday at Purdue, Tate certainly was Rocket-esque. The Hendersonville, Tenn., product had a game-high five receptions for 57 yards in the 24-21 win, including a 17-yarder in the final drive that set the Irish up with a first-and-goal from the 4.

He also returned a punt 16 yards and rushed for 55 yards on nine carries, including a 14-yard touchdown. He took handoffs from backup quarterback Dayne Crist and ran from the Irish version of the Wildcat formation.

It was ND's first full game without injured wide receiver Michael Floyd, one of the nation's most dangerous deep threats but now shelved by a broken collarbone until at least late November.

"It forces you to do more game planning," coach Charlie Weis said of Floyd's absence and the challenge to keep teams from constantly rolling double coverage to Tate's side. "You have to be more creative. You have to create more opportunities schematically rather than falling into the comfort zone that we'll just throw it to Floyd and he'll catch it."

Running the ball is still in Tate's comfort zone. He didn't even need to brush up at all with Irish running backs coach Tony Alford.

"He can't play at all. It's a shame," Alford joked. "Nah, he didn't need my help. Just wind up the little thing on his back and let him go."

"It was definitely fun," the converted high school running back said of converting back into a running back for extensive stretches for the first time in his college career. "The game was a little faster when I was playing running back. There were some cases when I should have been a little bit more patient. Overall, it was a fun experience. Hopefully, it will happen again."

There is some question whether it will. Until last week, running back Armando Allen was the Irish player who took direct snaps in the Wildcat, with Tate just one of the many wrinkles and options.

Allen missed the Purdue game with an ankle injury, but the nation's 13th-leading rusher is expected to be 100 percent for the Huskies. Against Michigan State, on Sept. 12, he threw a TD pass out of the Wildcat. So, who's the top cat?

"Well, it's so early in the week, we really haven't gotten into the game plan," Tate equivocated.

"Golden and I are always competing for everything," was Allen's counter. "The most important thing is: When my number is called, I've got to show up."

The Wildcat, whose roots go back to the old single wing, is hardly new in football. The offensive trend, characterized by a direct snap to the running back and an unbalanced offensive line, isn't even new to Notre Dame. It just seems that way.

In 2007 and 2008, the Wildcat plays were largely unspectacular and occasionally disastrous. The very first time the Irish used it was the third game of the 2007 season against Michigan. On the very first play from scrimmage, then-ND center John Sullivan snapped the ball over Allen's head, with the running back scrambling to recover it for a 17-yard loss all the way back to the Irish 1-yard line. It set the tone for an eventual 38-0 rout by the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.

Weis credits new offensive line coach Frank Verducci with bringing some fresh perspective to what he termed an "offseason staff project."

"From a lineman's perspective, I kind of like the Wildcat," Irish offensive tackle Sam Young offered. "I only wish I could watch it as it happens. We have to wait the next day to see the film. But it's a slick little operation."

And one Weis doesn't see as a fad.

"I don't think that it's going go away any time soon," he said. "I think defenses have already zeroed in on how they're going to play it. Even if a team doesn't show it, I think everyone's got to be ready for it every week.

"I know our defensive staff has a plan for it every week. If you are playing against a team that doesn't show it and all of a sudden they run it, you better understand what you are going do against it."

Eric Hansen covers Notre Dame for ESPNChicago.com and the South Bend Tribune.

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